Townie by Andre Dubus III
This summer, I’ve been reading this memoir and living inside of Dubus’ gritty, violence-infused scenes. This is a memoir that speaks directly from the New England town of Haverhill, where Dubus grew up with his brother and two sisters under the care of his mother. Right across the way, living on the college campus of the local junior college, Dubus’ father enjoyed fame as adored writing professor and increasingly renowned short story writer. While Dubus’ father did see his children once a week, he was far from involved in their lives.
Dubus provides rich descriptions of New England working class neighborhoods, bars, friendships, and codes of the street. Much of the book depicts Dubus’ building of a tough identity as a town fighter, A quiet and diminutive child, he became obsessed with proving himself physically. But, while building up his physical body he also developed a fighting mentality where he learned to see past the humanity of people to fight them. His discussion of how he learned to penetrate the membrane of humanity so that he could will himself to fight and be violent is interesting.
At times, I was overwhelmed with the numerous descriptions of fights in the book. But then, perhaps that is the point. Dubus was so immersed in fighting and violence that it was soul-deadening. The violence wears the reader down much as it must have Dubus.
But then, about three-quarters of the way through this book, Dubus describes his emergence as a writer and his discovery that he could write. This is where I find this book so valuable and moving. It is often rare to hear a writer describe his birth as a writer. From the ground up. Much like everything in Dubus’ life, he had to forge his writing skills and identity himself. He literally describes sitting down at a clear table, taking a pen to paper, and beginning to write. I love this image, myself. It makes me feel not so alone as a writer. And, it also somehow captures the magic of the writing experience. Spartan. Simple. Hardscrabble. Life-giving. Beautiful.
The amazing thing about this book is that Dubus resists the “tell-all” nature of a memoir which certainly talks a lot about the shortcomings of a famous writer, his father. Instead, Dubus’ tone is straight-froward and truthful. Yes, there is blame, but it’s not the type of blame where Dubus is exploiting his father’s neglectful parenting in order to gain readers’ sympathy or outrage. Rather, it is the truth-telling of a son who both reveres his father while also being all too aware of the ways he was absent. There is a note in the back of the book where Dubus quotes his father (I am paraphrasing here). Dubus says, “To my father who told me not to wait until my parents were dead to start writing about my family.” On the one hand, great writing advice from one writer to another. On the other hand, I can’t decide if Dubus’s father is gutsy or self-aggrandizing in this advice.